Why is this old Rabbi feeding a cat; what is the story behind this picture? The answer is a concept found in this week’s Parsha.
And Yaakov (Jacob) traveled to ‘Sukkot’ and built for himself a house, and for his herds he built shelters; therefore called the name of the place Sukkot (‘Shelters’).(Genesis 33:17)
Names of places in the Torah have significance; each place is named for a meaningful event that happened there. Beersheva (Genesis21:31; 26:33),Beit El, 28:19, Machanaim31:3 are just a few of the examples of commemorating a momentous event by naming a city after it. Therefore, it seems odd that Jacob would name a place after such a mundane thing as the shelters (“Sukkot”) he made for his animals. Rabbi Chaimm ben Atar (1696-1743; b. Morocco, d. Jerusalem), known by his monumental work Ohr HaChaim, suggests a novel idea. Yaakov (Jacob) named the location Succot because of an innovation he made there. It was perhaps the first time that a person constructed shelters for his animals. Although people had been grazing cattle for centuries, this was this first time someone took the animals welfare seriously by building them a shelter. Accordingly, he taught the world a message that one must have compassion not only for humans, but also for animals. They too deserve protection from heat, cold, wind, and rain.
This level of sensitivity has a seminal role in our lives because if one is cruel to animals it is hard to fathom that (s)he will be kind to humans. However, even the best of ideas and character traits can be misused if they are not properly understood. We are all familiar with certain groups in society that have taken this idea to an extreme and feel that human and animal life are equivalent; some even go so far as comparing killing chickens to holocaust victims. This misplaced goodness can cause people to be more concerned with the protection of animals than with the protection of human beings. Still in all, according to Ohr HaChaim’s commentary, Yaakov wanted to teach the world that it is appropriate to have mercy on animals. The concept was so notable that he wanted to establish it for all of humanity; that is why he named the place Sukkot, literally “huts” for his livestock.
[This is consistent with an incident in next week’s Parsha when Yaakov sends Joseph to visit his brothers. He tells him, Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock. [Genesis 37:14]. Joseph was instructed to look firstly after the welfare of his brothers but also to look after the flock’s welfare. The Talmud goes as far as stating that a person must not only treat animals nicely, (s)he should even show appreciation towards them because they provide sustenance for their owners. Yaakov (Jacob) was the first one to teach us this idea.]
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (1876-1970), pictured above, was a student of and eventually one of the main mentors and educators in an educational system called Mussar, which was a movement that focused on a methodology discovering one’s character strengths and weakness, and how to exploit the former and overcome the latter. The following incident occurred in Israel at Yeshiva Kfar Chassidim, where Rabbi Lopian taught during the last years of his life.
Mice had been spotted on several occasions in the Yeshiva’s kitchen storage area; a cat was found to chase them away. A few weeks later, while Rabbi Lopian was taking his daily walk, he noticed the cat; it was the first time he had seen one on Yeshivah grounds.
“Whose cat is this?” he asked. The student walking with him explained that the cat had been brought to the yeshivah to deal the mice problem.
“And who feeds her?”
“What do you mean?” answered the student. “She has plenty of food -she eats the mice. We don’t need to bring her food.”
The Rabbi countered, “If she is doing her job, it means she will be scaring off the mice and therefore won’t have anything to eat. We surely have to give her some food.” He then entered his apartment and brought out a bowl of milk. He told the student, “When you want one of G-d’s creatures to serve you, you need to take care of it. It is an explicit mitzvah in the Torah, “And I will put grass in your fields for your cattle -and you will eat…” (Deuteronomy 11:15).